Our grandchildren will pay if we don’t fix climate change

Microsoft Corp co-founder Bill Gates delivers his speech at the National Assembly on August 16, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea.

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The thought of becoming a grandparent is poignant for Bill Gates, even to write.

“I started looking at the world through a new lens recently – when my eldest daughter broke the amazing news to me that I would be becoming a grandfather next year,” Gates wrote in a letter published in overnight on his personal blog, Gates Notes.

Gates’ daughter, Jennifer, 26, and her husband, Nayel Nassar, are expecting their first baby in 2023.

“Just typing this sentence, ‘I will be a grandfather next year,’ makes me emotional,” wrote the 67-year-old billionaire philanthropist, who made his fortune co-founding Microsoft in the 1970s. “And this thought gives a new dimension to my work. When I think of the world in which my grandson will be born, I am more inspired than ever to help children and grandchildren everywhere to have a chance to survive and thrive.”

Gates goes on to summarize the work his eponymous philanthropic organization, the Gates Foundation, does for children living in global poverty, to improve education, pandemic preparedness, and the fight against polio and AIDS.

Gates also talks about the work he does to fight climate change, both through the Gates Foundation and by supporting early-stage climate companies with his investment firm, Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

Current leaders’ response to climate change will impact future generations, which is the first point Gates makes in the section of his letter where he addresses climate change.

“I can sum up the solution to climate change in two sentences: We must eliminate global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050,” Gates writes. “Extreme weather is already causing more suffering, and if we don’t achieve net zero emissions, our grandchildren will grow up in a world that is considerably worse.”

Getting to zero will be the hardest thing humans have ever done.

Bill Gates

Microsoft co-founder, climate investor

The implications are enormous, as is the challenge.

“Getting to zero will be the hardest thing humans have ever done,” Gates writes. “We need to revolutionize the entire physical economy – how we make things, move around, generate electricity, grow food and stay warm and cool – in less than three decades.”

Gates began working on climate change when he learned of the struggles of small farmers in the countries where his namesake philanthropic organization worked. The Gates Foundation funds climate adaptation work, helping people adapt to the implications of a warming world, where there is no profit to be made by commercial enterprise.

“It starts from the idea that the poorest suffer the most from climate change, but companies have no natural incentive to make tools that help them,” Gates writes.

“A seed company may benefit from, for example, a new type of tomato that is a nicer shade of red and does not bruise easily, but it has no incentive to make better strains of cassava that (a) survive floods and droughts and (b) are cheap enough for the world’s low-income farmers,” Gates writes. “The foundation’s role is to ensure that the poorest benefit from the same innovative skills enjoyed by richer countries.”

Why poorer countries want rich countries to pay their climate change bill

Not all of Gates’ climate work is philanthropic. Breakthrough Energy Ventures funds start-ups that work to build and grow businesses to decarbonize various sectors of the economy. Building for-profit companies to solve a problem that affects the well-being of the world’s population may seem disreputable to Gates, who already has a fortune to his name – $103.6 billion according to Forbes on Monday.

But Gates says decarbonizing global industry is too big an issue even for his deep pockets.

“Philanthropy alone cannot eliminate greenhouse gases. Only markets and governments can achieve this kind of pace and scale,” Gates said. Any profits Gates makes on investments he makes in Breakthrough Energy companies will be plowed back into climate work or the philanthropic foundation, he said.

Also, if companies fighting climate change can be self-sufficient, it will encourage other investors to put money into them.

“Companies must be profitable in order to grow, continue to operate, and prove that there is a market for their products,” Gates writes. “The profit incentive will attract other innovators, creating competition that will drive down the prices of zero-emissions inventions and have a significant impact on building emissions.”

Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise

The bad news is that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

“Unfortunately, on the short-term targets, we are falling short. Between 2021 and 2022, global emissions actually fell from 51 billion tonnes of carbon equivalent to 52 billion tonnes,” Gates writes.

On Monday, the UN Secretary-General also underscored the grim reality of the current climate change moment.

“We are always going in the wrong direction,” António Guterres said on Monday. “The global emissions gap is widening. The 1.5 degree goal is out of steam. National climate plans are woefully insufficient.”

Despite the bleakness of the current climate moment, Gates is optimistic about increasing investment in decarbonization technologies.

“We are much further ahead than I would have predicted a few years ago in getting companies to invest in zero-carbon breakthroughs,” Gates writes.

Public funding for climate research and development has increased by a third since the 2015 Paris climate accord, and in the United States, laws passed this year will spend $500 billion on remoteness of US energy infrastructure from fossil fuel-based sources, according to Gates.

Private money is also being invested in climate technologies at a good pace. Venture capitalists have invested $70 billion in clean energy startups over the past two years, Gates writes.

Watch CNBC's full interview with Breakthrough Energy founder Bill Gates

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